A leader of the backbench Tory right protested yesterday at John Major's openly stated enthusiasm for bringing Chris Patten, Governor of Hong Kong, back to the highest levels of the party.
The rumblings started as Mr Major told BBC Radio's Today programme that politics would be "the stronger and more effective" if his "dear friend" Mr Patten "were to come back and take his proper place in it and I personally hope that he will".
And Mr Major identified Mr Patten as a potential contender for the party leadership. "When the time comes for me to stand down, there are a number of colleagues of outstanding ability who would have a legitimate claim to be leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. Were Chris Patten back, he would certainly be among that number."
This provoked a response by John Townend, chairman of the 92 Group of right-wing backbench MPs. He echoed private complaints by other right- wingers dismissive about the idea of Mr Patten, who lost his Bath seat in the general election, becoming leader.
Last weekend Mr Patten made clear he was considering a return to British politics when his Hong Kong post expires in June next year, more than a month after the last possible date for an election. He and Mr Major have made it clear there is no question of this happening before the election.
Mr Townend told BBC Radio 4: "It is unlikely the party would pick as its leader somebody who didn't fight the next election. The Conservative Party has now got to be led from the centre-right and clearly Chris Patten is centre-left." One right-wing backbencher said it would be "barmy" to treat Mr Patten as a potential leader.
The dispute coincided with speculation about a summer reshuffle. MPs close to Sir Patrick Mayhew - who, some Tories have suggested, could quit as Northern Ireland Secretary, sparking off a July reshuffle - were sceptical about whether he was likely go before the general election, with political negotiations in their delicate state. One source said the only plausible circumstances in which he would do so was if it was obvious a long-term settlement was in sight. The source also suggested Sir Patrick had recently explored with colleagues whether he ought to stand down, given that he is 66. The message had come back that he should not and the source suggested this coincided with his own desires.